Letting Go Of Normal

Don’t talk about disability. Don’t write about your blindness. Don’t mention anything that makes you different. Feel ashamed of your cane. Never disclose. Blend in. Hide.
Not so long ago, I lived by these rules, and most troublingly, they were of my own making. I’d endured my fair share of awkward stares and been asked to conceal my cane in photographs, but on the whole, I was not discouraged when it came to simply being me. I was blessed with a relatively accepting community that understood blindness was a part of me (but not the only part), and never required me to pretend otherwise.
Yet, I felt an overwhelming desire to “be like everyone else.” I suppose most young people seek a sense of belonging, but this ran much more deeply than a youthful herd mentality. I was always a bit of a loner, so wasn’t as influenced by popularity contests as my peers.
Instead, I pursued a much less attainable goal: I wanted total erasure of my disability. Seeming “too blind” was a mark of failure. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but a persistent sense of shame dogged me everywhere, and while I tried to combat it at different points and never resorted to refusing to use a cane, I fought my essential differentness just as fiercely. It didn’t show much, because on some level I knew it was foolish, but I carried a lot of internalized guilt and unhappiness, and the voices in my head told me to erase any traces of perceived inadequacy, which included blindness.
The way I saw it, disability was nothing but a stumbling block. If I was sighted, my life would be ever so much more fulfilling. (I’ve grown a whole lot in the last five years. It’s really rather astonishing.) I fervently believed that disability stood in the way of everything I lacked: a job, a boyfriend, general acceptance, and the right to be “normal.” Blindness certainly interfered with these goals, but assigning sole blame to my broken eyes was far more disabling than acknowledging there might be other factors at play.
When I was introduced to other disabled people who were content with themselves, the problem worsened. I was resistant at first. Why is everyone yelling about disability? Shouldn’t we be stressing how normal we are? Why aren’t we working harder to blend in?
My refusal to be identified with my disability began to permeate my writing, my self-image, even my relationships. I resented it when I needed help, and avoided writing about disability, even when encouraged to do so. I went on and on about how I wasn’t “like other blind people.” No no, I was much more committed to assimilation, and far more aware of my place in the sighted world. All these people placing disability at the forefront of their lives had it all wrong. The key to a better life for us all is to be more like able people! Why don’t they realize this? Why?!
I eventually had to come face to face with an uncomfortable truth: disability is not the only or most important part of my identity, but it matters, and it deserves to be acknowledged. Further, I was forced to admit that pretending my disability didn’t exist, and only referring to it in a self-deprecating, apologetic way wasn’t helping anyone, least of all fellow disabled people. The path to equality did not lie in erasure, but in acceptance. How could others accept us if we did not accept ourselves? How could others understand us if we didn’t open up? Why did it feel so wrong to express myself in the context of a disability I live with each day?
Of course, I still feel squirmy when my blindness is brought up in unrelated discussions. I dislike talking about it in job interviews, at the doctor’s office, in cabs, on the bus, on a street corner. I grow weary of proving that I’m more than my blindness, and that my disability doesn’t hamper other forms of self-expression.
On the other hand, I now feel at ease with bristling when someone suggests I put my cane out of sight. I make blind jokes with joyful humour rather than with shame disguised as mirth. Asking for help is still difficult, but I take it in stride rather than cringing with embarrassment. I speak up. I stand up. I don’t hide anymore.
No, blindness will never be the chief focus of my life, even though I consider myself a disability advocate. I’ll always frame my identity in a much more complex way than as “blind girl.” I am a blind girl, yes, but I’m also a writer, and a communications specialist, and a friend, and a lover, and a daughter, and a sister, and a musician, and a bookworm, and, as my Twitter bio reveals, a fierce defender of the Oxford comma.
All this being said, I hope I will never again believe that the best way forward involves concealment and shame and the quest to disappear completely. I’ve found that, in my own life at least, asserting my humanity is best accomplished by embracing my differences rather than shunning them. The world is far more diverse than many would think, and I’m merely a part of that glorious tapestry of diversity. I don’t have to be proud of my disability, or view it as a superpower, or “embrace” it. No one has to do anything in particular; isn’t that the whole point of our advocacy, in the end? Aren’t we all just focused on giving everyone equal choice and license to express themselves however they wish?
So, talk about disability, as often and as loudly as you want (or don’t, that’s okay, too). Write about your disability. Mention anything that seems relevant, even and especially if it makes you different. Never feel ashamed of your cane or service dog or wheelchair, or any other symbol of your disability. Disclose, if you think it’s wise. Don’t blend in unless you really want to. Most of all, never hide. Whether you live in the spotlight or in the most ordinary of circumstances, never hide.

Accommodation with a Side of Guilt, Please

This evening, I went out to dinner with some friends. I ordered a dish I’ve eaten many times (a salad) only to find that they’ve begun presenting it in a new way: the dressing was in a small cup on the edge of the platter, rather than atop the food as it usually is. I froze, slightly embarrassed. I’ve always had trouble dressing my salad if it’s in a cup. Squeeze bottles? No problem. These give me a certain degree of control. Cups, however, are a different story. (Disclaimer: some blind people have no issue with these whatsoever.) I was just about to ask someone at my table to help when our extremely-attentive server materialized at my elbow:
“Do you want me to take this back and dress it for you?”
“Um…no, it’s okay…it’s just a bit awkward—“
“I totally understand. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be right back.”
Away went my plate. The server appeared several minutes later, saying “Here’s your salad. We have a special rule here where each time food is sent back for any reason, we have to actually make a new dish. So, we just made you a new salad and dressed it for you.”
I was stunned. I had just inadvertently wasted an entire plate of food so that someone could put dressing on top of my salad for me? Forget being slightly embarrassed: I was mortified and, I confess, a little ashamed. While the server reassured me that it was all okay, I silently asked the powers that be to disappear me immediately. They did not oblige.

I’m used to being “accommodated”. Indeed, I often expect it: when I enroll in university classes, each of my instructors is given an accommodation letter, which describes the accommodations I’ll need to participate fully in the classroom. (If I sound like a handbook, that’s because I wrote one—no, really!) I also expect workplaces to make (reasonable) accommodations to the work environment. This is something I’ve been encouraged to view as normal and acceptable. As is typical for me, I have felt heaps of unnecessary guilt over accommodations, even when they are deemed “reasonable”. Once, in ninth grade, my science teacher got together with a few others on staff and made me a periodic table, so I wouldn’t have to use the rather inadequate one in my textbook. My junior high Industrial Arts teacher went out of his way to make sure I could try out all the same equipment everyone else could. He even positioned the end of a nail gun while I fired, showing a remarkable lack of concern for his fingers. (If you’re reading this, I want to thank you. I’ll never forget that one.)

When people go above and beyond the call of duty for me, I feel grateful (healthy) and horribly guilty (unhealthy). Instead of simply thanking people and getting on with things, I waste time and emotional resources worrying about how undeserving or inconvenient or high-maintenance I’m being. While the person who is helping me is busy doing me a favour, I’m busy coming up with all the reasons I shouldn’t be accepting it. Even when I do accept it, as I did with that salad, the shame and humiliation will plague me for days. Yes, you read that correctly: days. This particular incident was so awkward that I’m amazed I didn’t start crying right there at the table; goodness knows I wanted to.

As far as the server was concerned, she was helping a gal out, no more no less. I have no idea what the kitchen staff thought, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were about a dozen different kinds of exasperated. As far as I was concerned, I’d manage to waste food, fill my server’s time with running back and forth (in a very busy restaurant, I might add) and make a fool of myself all in about five minutes. I’m cringing as I write this, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it needs to be discussed. There are probably a lot of people out there who have felt how I’m feeling right now.

I’m trying to be okay with being accommodated. I’m trying to be at peace with accepting help, and depending on others, and even letting people do me favours now and then. Could I have dressed the damn thing myself? Of course. Would it have been less messy and awkward to have someone else do it? Absolutely. Did I force anyone to do it for me? No. Am I still going to feel awful about it for days to come? Yup.

But should I feel guilty? Most people seem to think I shouldn’t. Accommodations are there for a reason, and in many cases they are universal enough to be made into policy and/or law. But just because it’s not in a handbook or policy statement doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be done. While imposing unreasonable accommodations on people at work, school, and elsewhere isn’t going to further the cause, it shouldn’t mean that any random act of kindness ought to be rejected.

Should we make a habit of letting people do things for us, especially when we’re capable of doing them ourselves? If you know me at all, then you know I’d never suggest such a thing. However, this does mean that we should be comfortable with accepting what people want to give us now and then. If it’s not a sin to let someone carry your heavy bag, or hold open a door, or grab you a drink (all things sighted people let others do for them on a regular basis) then why not let someone offer kindness if they really, really want to?

I’m learning, guys. I’m learning. But for now…I think I’ll go and have that cry.